2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500: Four by Fifty (Grand)

We finally got some real seat time in the all-new M-Class–and it was worth the wait. The new Mercedes truck is everything the old ML wasn’t, beginning from bare metal. Where the old M was a body-on-frame, overweight truck with a leather-and-wood wrapper over sturdy but plebian mechanicals, the new crossover structure gives the M a refined nature the previous iteration could never hope to match. Where the old M had quality problems and suffered owner complaints for years into production, the new M is the product of a more meticulous Mercedes-Benz–having implemented stringent new quality controls on the assembly lines and sworn off the complicated electronics they included simply for their own sake. Overall, where the old M was more status symbol than sensible automotive choice, the new M oozes not just class, but competence.

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Outside the change isn’t so evident; the new M looks a lot like the old, re-rendered in hi-def. The corners and bodyside lines are a little more creased; the trim and sparse chrome bits a little more defined. The saw-tooth grille insert is reminiscent of machined industrial equipment. Jeweled taillamps and HID headlights complete the high-tech theme. One thing hasn’t changed, though–that oversized, tri-pointed star on the grille is still suitable for Flava-Flav’s accessory drawer.

Under the skin, the M has grown up, too. Engine choices are mostly new or updated, from the bread-and-butter V6 ML350 to the tested ML500, with prices increasing concurrent to horsepower. We’ve driven the 268-horse ML350 model (at around $39,000 to start), and found it to be smooth if not exactly powerful. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is claimed to be an utterly adequate 8.4 seconds. In other words, it’s entirely sufficient for the soccer mom stereotype that we often see behind the wheel of these machines.

And then there’s that V8. The heart of the $48,500 ML500, we’ve enjoyed this same motor in a number of Benzes–and even in this second-heaviest of applications (the new R-Class ‘non-minivan’ is just a smidge stouter), it’s a beaut. With 339 lb.-ft. of torque, there’s no shortage of off-the-line grunt–and the 302 horsepower rating means the M pulls to way beyond our own limits on public roads (self-imposed restraint is prudent when piloting somebody else’s spanking-new luxury vehicle, especially a tall one). Even more go is available with the 510hp AMG ML63, but we figure in an SUV, enough is enough. The ML500 hits 60 m.p.h. in under 7 seconds, which even we never found lacking. (For science’s sake, we will reveal that the 0-60 time of the ML63 is said to be 5 seconds flat, with top speed limited at over 155 m.p.h.)

In true over-engineered Mercedes tradition, the rest of the greasy bits are more than up to the job of harnessing all that go. 255/55 rubber on 18-inch rims give grip suitable for sports-cars; 50-series tires on 19s are optional. Vented disc brakes of 13.8″ and 13″ diameter front/rear provide plenty of contrasting ‘whoa.’ The transmission is that famous 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic, which reacts quickly yet serenely to driver inputs, never really feeling stressed. And the suspension, comprised of double wishbones up front and 4-link coils out back, plus gas-charged shocks, is softly compliant on rough roads, yet far from tippy or floaty when pushed.

We didn’t go too far off road, but we’ve tested MLs before and found them more than capable of traversing rougher terrain than most owners will ever see. Still, Mercedes outfits the ML500 with 4MATIC full-time all-wheel-drive, so the truck can at least back up the claims its rugged shape makes for it. For extra off-road prowess, Mercedes further fits a standard hill-ascent/descent control system, ESP and Traction Control, and four-channel ABS with off-road programming for better stopping on loose surfaces.

Of course, your average Benz pilot probably never pops the hood, much less investigates the hardware under the car. For these folks, the true allure of a vehicle like this–besides the status afforded by that aforementioned badge–is the opulence to be found inside. And as you’d expect, the new ML doesn’t fall short.

You’d expect leather seats and wood trim–and you wouldn’t be disappointed. But you can feel the difference between Nappa leather from Italian bulls and leather from, say, Flint’s finest milk cows–Mercedes’ hides feel twice as thick and yet twice as pliant as your average cow skin. The wood, too, feels not so much like an appliqué as a structural part of the dashboard. Even the interior bits your average driver doesn’t often touch are high-class; the dashtop, for instance, has more give than some cars’ third-row seats.

For a mid-size SUV, the ML is pretty roomy, too. Clever packaging gives this new model more passenger space than the outgoing soft-roader, especially in critical areas such as leg-room and elbow-room. An 8-speaker standard stereo, tilt/telescope multi-function steering wheel, automatic climate control, auto up/down windows, rain-sensing wipers and ambient lighting round out the best of the M-Class’ standard fare. Throw in the coffee table-sized sunroof, power everything, and full gauges with a gorgeous backlighting glow, and you get a truck that imparts a serious feeling of wealth to the driver–even if it’s just a loaner.

Too bad, then, that the navigation system is as disappointing as it is. Not that we haven’t seen worse, but this $1,240 option’s list of faults begins with a lack of touch-screen capability and continues from there. In typical German fashion, the software here is logical–but requires expert-level understanding for any level of comfort. Menus, sub-menus, and a plethora of buttons to either side of the unit simply add to the confusion. Bottom line: if you’re going to invest in this toy, be prepared to study the (separate) operator’s manuals (there are two).

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Visibility is excellent in all directions; there’s a lot of glass here. The ride is serene but taut; the road’s character is felt at all times but never becomes intrusive. Cargo space is improved due to the growth in length and height; there’s 29.4 cubic feet available with the seats up and 72.4′ when they’re down. Fuel economy is less impressive; we averaged 18.5 m.p.g. in mostly city driving.

Passenger safety, too, is addressed comprehensively. Standard airbags include curtain, side and frontal units; the latter of which deploy in two stages depending on impact harshness. 3-point seatbelts are fitted to all five positions, as are belt tensioners. Optional life-saving gear includes active head restraints (in company lingo–all caps, of course–NECK-PRO), as well as the PRE-SAFE system, which anticipates accidents and attempts to mitigate damage by applying brake force, positioning the power seats, tensioning the belts, and closing the sunroof. 24-hour roadside assistance and TeleAid communications mean you’ll never be stuck alone.

There’s no doubt that the new M-Class eclipses the old in every objective measure. Where the previous generation was somewhat ungainly, too trucky, and not luxurious enough, the new ML feels more than anything like an E-Class that happens to be a couple feet higher off the ground. Just as important, what with Mercedes’ recent gains in quality and owner satisfaction studies, we expect the new M-Class to be a better buy, too–all in all, a better, more reliable representation of what a Mercedes-Benz should be.

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